Five Big Management Lessons from a Small Sail Boat

0425376954_159848a_8colI’ve sailed a small boat for a few years now, and I have found that managing a business is like sailing a boat; it is all about harnessing forces you don’t entirely control to get to the destination you have in mind. The wind blows where it will, yet a good sailor pilots his craft to harbor. A sailboat is a much more appropriate metaphor for management than a motorboat. Anyone can point a watercraft powered by internal combustion at a distant point and expect to get there; though my experience with powerboats is they rarely seem to be going anywhere interesting. Real life is not like a motorboat, we just don’t have the power to ignore the wind and tide; sea and storm. Life, and leadership, calls for know-how and experience, patience, luck, and a bit of intrepid spirit willing to risk a thing or two.

There is plenty of science in sailing for the mariner inclined to math and physics. Of course dauntless adventurers from Micronesia to Norway explored the globe for centuries without the benefit of algebra, or even compasses. These game and gallant seafarers understood the forces at work on their vessels in ways inconceivable to the narrow fundamentalism of Formulae which so preoccupies the modern imagination. Like the ancient mariners, some of the most important knowledge of the sea is passed as folklore from one skipper’s successful voyage to another.

So here are five big management lessons I’ve learned from sailing a small boat. Like all free advice, use what is useful and forget the rest.

Buy the Best Equipment you can Afford

There is a law of nature that any possible failure will occur at the worst possible time.
Certain critical pieces of a sailboat are worth investing in to get the best possible performance and safety. Purchase high quality sails and lines (there are no ropes on a sailboat, thank you). Install sturdy wenches and cleats. Use tinned wire for all your electrical work. These assets will pay dividends in performance when it counts. Notice that some of the most important equipment are very sexy. They are the working bits that get the job done and are often invisible.

Here are three things to make sure you have built into your company to make sure it can weather the storms of growth and competition. First, a solid, scalable accounting system is the backbone of your enterprise. A top end accounting platform that has been expertly configured and properly maintained not only produces reliable financial statements, but become the source of vital business intelligence. An accounting system with a good reporting interface will readily supply you with insight about product performance, customer behavior, and operational effectiveness.

Second, no modern enterprise can afford to skimp on digital presence, which includes websites, but also all manner of social media. Customers will make judgments in seconds based on the quality of websites. The website itself is a combination of marketing tool and transactional platform. The experience must be expertly designed and continuously evolving to be effective. There is no substitute for professional management of these assets.

Third, every enterprise beyond a popcorn stand must invest in a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool. Efficient growth with out a CRM is impossible. A CRM will coordinate client interaction from prospect to implementation, to relationship expansion. But the big boost to performance from a CRM comes from automation and business intelligence. The CRM must, I say must, integrate with your accounting system. This is an ongoing investment that pays off big.

A good CRM system will allow you to automate workflows like marketing campaigns, contract execution, and invoicing. It becomes a repository for all prospect and customer information, as well as marketing data from which you will be able to develop indispensable metrics to manage every phase of the business. These three tools; accounting, digital presence, and CRM combine to form the critical data infrastructure of the enterprise. Do not skimp on these.

Make the Most of What You Have

Success on a sailboat is often a combination of quality equipment and ingenuity. It is impossible to anticipate every challenge on boat under way. And it is impossible, for most of us, to afford the very best of everything on shore. A good skipper is able to improvise based on the materials at hand. In fact, ingenuity forces the leader to think about problems in new ways of is almost always the source of real insight. Another way to stating this is the lack of some equipment or ready solution is not an obstacle for a good sailor and should never be an excuse for failure.

Seamanship is about ingenuity and the wiliness to improvise. The clever reader will suspect they detect a contradiction here; what of the earlier advice not to skimp of critical equipment? “Are you now calling the hillbilly sloop a virtue?”, they might ask. Yes. When the alternative is failure. Using the skills and tools at hand to get the job done is good practice. A good solution now is better than the best solution never. If you can’t afford a world class CRM, use Excel and Google Docs until you can.

A Good Crew Isn’t What You Think

The most important characteristics of a good crew are, in this order: 1) Fortitude, 2) Compatibility, and 3) Competence. A sailboat is a small confined space from which there is no escape once you shove off from the dock. The voyage itself is often demanding and will surface every flaw and strength of character in the crew (and skipper). An enterprise is similar and a good leader select the crew (key executives) with care because the strains of the journey commercial success will test team in powerful ways.

Fortitude is the first and most significant factor to look for. A good fellow with lots talent is of no use to anyone if he looses his nerve in a storm. Fortitude is the virtue of courage that enables the crew to persevere in hardship. This shared hardship is the source of genuine esprit-de-corps and the willingness to sacrifice for the others. Look for this quality first.

Next in order is compatibility. This quality is a certain flexibility that allows a crew to accommodate each other. It is not the same as friendship or affinity; which is often lost put to the test. But it is the willingness grant the others space to be themselves, do their job, and offer the lubrication of appreciation. Crew, or teammates, who are critical, overbearing, or meddlesome, are bad crew regardless of their other virtues.

Beware any teammate who believes that the success or failure of the voyage hinges on them. A critical aspect of compatibility is the willingness to know one’s place on the boat – literally. Each crew has a job and must own that task willingly. The moment a crew wants to commandeer the role of another crew (or skipper), compatibility is lost and misery for all ensues.

Finally, a crew must have competence and the more the better. Competence is cultivated by experience and enable the crew to do the right thing without direction. An experienced and competent crew make for a quick and safe passage. When selecting team members for your organization it is imperative you staff up with sufficient competence in key roles.

A good team can include a large number of novices; as long as they have fortitude and compatibility. But a team entirely of novices is much more likely to fail then one with good experience. It is a very false economy to cut corners in assembling a experience team of leaders. Just as in critical equipment, buy the best experience you can afford.

Get a Map. Set a Course

No sailor is going to plan a voyage without a map and plotting a course. For you, this means making sure you know everything you can about your competitive space that you can. This becomes your map. There are many feature of geography to account for if you are going to make it to your destination. Be careful you know where the shore is at all times, keep away from the shallows and the rocks.

There is no excuse for leader to be unfamiliar with the activities of all of their competitors. Listen to the analyst calls of your publicly traded competitors, read their marketing material. Constantly monitor the trends in your market and what the major players are doing. What demographic changes will affect your business in the future?

Based on all of the information, set a course of your company. Plot the way forward and share the course with your crew. They will appreciate knowing the plan. But don’t assume that course you set will be the ultimate route! If you slavishly stay the course you initially set, you may well find yourself on a lee shore. No matter how diligently you map out your surrounds and how expertly you plot a course, unforeseen realities will present themselves.

A good navigator will continuously take sightings, recalculate the know position and compare to the planned course. For your enterprise, you must establish those landmarks against which you will measure your progress before you start. Set goals for revenue, margin, product launches, and market share. Just a sailor will decompose a journey into waypoints that mark the progress along the course, so you should decompose each of these landmarks into waypoints, mini goals with short durations, that provide indications of progress.

Changing Course

Some times success at sea means changing course, even changing the destination. When a major unforeseen obstacle presents in encountered, like a hurricane or uncharted reef, the only thing to do is to drastically alter course. This is not undertaken lightly. But it can be the best possible action for the success of the voyage and safety of the crew. When you are navigating your enterprise you may encounter a reality that forces you to rethink your course. A new competitor may enter the market, or the economy may take an unexpected turn. Your company may not perform as expected, or you may encounter an opportunity you never dreamed of. All of these circumstances call for a major change in course. Be on the look out for them.